Already a poet and novelist, Leonard Cohen became interested in the Greenwich Village folk scene during the mid-1960s and began setting his poems to music. Though some did not care for Cohen’s baritone voice and deadpan delivery, he mostly enjoyed critical and commercial success and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008 and received a Grammy for lifetime achievement in 2010.
Already established as a poet and novelist (his first book of poems, Let Us Compare Mythologies, was published in 1956), Cohen became interested in the Greenwich Village folk scene while living in New York City during the mid-1960s, and he began setting his poems to music. In 1967 Judy Collins recorded two of his songs, “Suzanne” and “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” and that same year Cohen began performing in public, including an appearance at the Newport (Rhode Island) Folk Festival. By the end of the year, he had recorded The Songs of Leonard Cohen, which included the melancholy “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.” That album was followed by Songs from a Room (1969), featuring the now often-covered “Bird on a Wire,” and Songs of Love and Hate (1971), containing “Famous Blue Raincoat,” a ballad in the form of a letter from a cuckold to his wife’s lover.
Though some did not care for Cohen’s baritone voice and deadpan delivery, he mostly enjoyed critical and commercial success. Leonard Cohen: Live Songs (1973) and New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974), which included “Chelsea Hotel No. 2,” a frank recollection of a brief sexual encounter with Janis Joplin, further deepened Cohen’s standing as a songwriter of exceptional emotional power. His career then took a decided turn for the worse with the disappointing Death of a Ladies’ Man (1977), a collaboration with legendary producer Phil Spector, whose grandiose style was ill-suited to Cohen’s understated songs. For most of the 1980s Cohen was out of favor, but his 1988 album, I’m Your Man, included the club hits “First We Take Manhattan” and “Everybody Knows” and introduced his songwriting to a new generation.
After releasing The Future (1992), he retired to a Buddhist monastery outside Los Angeles. He emerged in 1999 and returned to the studio, producing Ten New Songs (2001) and Dear Heather (2004). The critically acclaimed documentary “Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man” (2005) blended interview and archival footage with performances of Cohen’s songs by a variety of musicians.
In 2005 Cohen discovered that his business manager had embezzled some $5 million from his savings, virtually wiping out his retirement fund. While he won a $7.9 million judgment against her the following year, Cohen was unable to recover the money, and he embarked on a concert tour - his first in 15 years - in 2008 to rebuild his finances. One performance from that tour was recorded for the album Live in London (2009), a two-disc set that proved that at age 73 Cohen was as vibrant and vital as ever.
Cohen’s latest album, Old Ideas (2012) features ten new songs that mine the heart, shake the body and break the boundaries as everybody knows only Leonard can do. A signature of our time, Leonard’s baritone holds us like the voices of Hank, Frank and Ray. These are songs that nobody knows and everyone will treasure.
Fans were given a hint of what to expect when Cohen made remarks as the recipient of the Principe de Asturias Prize for literature in Spain in October 2011.
“As I grew older, I understood that instructions came with this voice. And the instructions were these...Never to lament casually. And if one is to express the great inevitable defeat that awaits us all, it must be done within the strict confines of dignity & beauty.”
The album was produced with Patrick Leonard, Anjani Thomas, Ed Sanders and Dino Soldo. Complementing Cohen’s signature baritone on Old Ideas are the exceptional vocalists Dana Glover, Sharon Robinson, The Webb Sisters (Hattie and Charley Webb) and Jennifer Warnes. The album’s cover design and drawings are Cohen’s own.